A mother's criticism causes distinctive neural activity among formerly depressed

March 31, 2009,
A mother’s criticism touches nerve in formerly depressed
While inside an fMRI scanner, participants listened to audio recordings of remarks from their mothers. Some comments were praising, some were critical, and others were neutral. Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

(PhysOrg.com) -- Formerly depressed women show patterns of brain activity when they are criticized by their mothers that are distinctly different from the patterns shown by never depressed controls, according to a new study from Harvard University. The participants reported being completely well and fully recovered, yet their neural activity resembled that which has been observed in depressed individuals in other studies.

The study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, was led by Jill M. Hooley, professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Hooley's co-authors were Holly Parker, also of Harvard, and Staci Gruber, Julien Guillaumot, Jadwiga Rogowska and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

"We found that even though our formerly depressed participants were fully well, had no symptoms, and felt fine, different things were happening in their brains when they were exposed to personal criticism," says Hooley. "What's interesting to us about these findings is that although these women were fully recovered, at the level of the brain they were not back to normal."

The study included 23 female participants, 12 of whom had no history of depression or any other mental illness and 11 of whom had previously experienced one or more depressive episodes, but had reported no symptoms for an average of 20 months. To an observer, both the control group and the formerly depressed appeared completely healthy.

While inside an scanner, the participants listened to 30-second audio recordings of remarks from their mother. Some comments were praising, some were critical and others were neutral in content. The comments were previously recorded over the telephone with the permission of the mothers. The participants were also asked to rate their mood on a scale from one to five after hearing the different kinds of remarks.

Despite being healthy and reporting similar conscious reactions to the recorded comments, the formerly depressed showed different activity in their brains, compared to those who had never been depressed. "When we asked them how they felt after being criticized, they responded in the same way as the controls did," said Hooley. "But when we looked at the brain scans, the patterns of activation were quite different. So this is happening under the radar of awareness."

Individuals who had never been depressed showed increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are brain areas involved in the cognitive control of emotion. The formerly depressed individuals did not show activity in these areas, but instead showed increased activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is responsive to potentially threatening stimuli. Previous research has shown similar activity in these neural systems among individuals who are currently depressed.

"When these formerly depressed participants are processing criticism, some brain areas thought to be involved in emotion regulation are less active, and the amygdala is actually more active, compared to the healthy controls," says Hooley. "We know that this is not linked to them being symptomatic now. These findings tell us that even when people are fully recovered from an episode of depression, their ability to process criticism is still different - and probably not in a good way."

What the researchers don't know is whether this type of activity within these brain systems exists prior to the development of a depressive episode, or if this activity could be a kind of scar left on the brain by a past episode of depression, says Hooley.

Previous studies have shown that living in a critical family environment increases rates of relapse in depression, and so use of criticism in this study is particularly important and applicable to real life.

Care was taken to avoid placing the formerly depressed individuals in a potentially harmful situation. The researchers ensured that the criticisms were not too extreme. Mothers provided the critical remarks in a very specific format, and the remarks were criticisms that the mothers had previously voiced. Examples of the criticisms included statements about tattoos or body piercing, failing to send thank you notes, or being inconsiderate and untidy.

To protect participants, the criticisms were required to concern topics that the daughters had previously heard about from their mothers, although the praising remarks were in some cases new to the daughters.

"We made sure that everybody left in a good frame of mind, and still had a good relationship with their mother," says Hooley. "That was crucial."

Source: Harvard University (news : web)

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not rated yet Mar 31, 2009
Well, in a sort of limited way it was alright. I say there, that's astute. Let's get together and call ourselves an Institute!

Awful careful.
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 01, 2009
"What's interesting to us about these findings is that although these women were fully recovered, at the level of the brain they were not back to normal.(...)
"their ability to process criticism is still different - and probably not in a good way."

This last statement is VERY unscientific and dangerous, it comes down to "your brain differs then mine and it's probably not a good thing." It's easy to guess what the next step will be - therapy for people who's brain scans don't meet the average patterns.

If formerly depressed patients feel fine for a prolonged period of time then they ARE fine period. If anything it's their scans which should be used as a reference for others suffering from depression and not the scans of those who never suffered from one.

There is no such thing as normal state, every single experience changes the brain forever, this is simply how neural networks work and why they are able to learn, the majority of those changes are insignificant but the more intense the experience the stronger the effect. You cannot unlearn something. Those who suffered from depression, addiction, or some other traumatic experience will have their brains changed forever in a significant way and making remarks about those changes being bad is not only pointless but also in cases like depression harmful for the patients chances of recovery.

Finally the changes observed may very well be additional thought patterns developed by patients as a safeguards from depression as opposed to the reason of the depression in the first place so in this case they would actually be a good thing.

As can be seen here brain scans have a potential to cause a lot of grief while their benefits are questionable.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2009
"What's interesting to us about these findings is that although these women were fully recovered, at the level of the brain they were not back to normal.(...)

"their ability to process criticism is still different - and probably not in a good way."

This last statement is VERY unscientific and dangerous, it comes down to "your brain differs then mine and it's probably not a good thing."

I think you are overreacting here. You could take the same argument and apply it to antidepressants. Ie: "What right do you have to suggest that its bad that I feel like I want to kill myself? You want to destroy who I am you arrogant jerk!"

They're study suggests that people who are depressed or have experienced depression feel threatened and do not control their emotions when experiencing criticism, while the brains of people who have not experienced depression attempt to suppress emotions.

Its perfectly plausible (though perhaps not correct) that the former is an innate trait that increases incidence of depression, and not a result of experiencing depression, or a learned behavior. I believe that is what they are suggesting.

If that indeed is the case, I think most people would feel relieved. As evidence, someone close to me has dealt with severe depression. And one of the things that made them feel a bit better about their situation was the belief that the depression was due to a chemical imbalance, and not a character or personality fault. The former being completely out of ones control and the latter being very personal.

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